One recent August afternoon, Tim Mills was sitting at home in a soft chair contemplating grits. Just the evening before, he and his wife, Alice, had a supper of salmon steaks, grits and garden peas. “Take the juice from the vegetable you cook and pour it over the grits. Don’t add something extra. I love it,” he said. Alice Mills loves grits, too. “I love it the plain, simple, ordinary way with salt and pepper and butter. You can’t beat it and I’ve tried doctoring it up using chicken broth instead of water,” she said.
The Millses make grits on their own farm in northeastern Clarke County. The grits, along with corn meal, are ground up in a mill invented by Mills and turned with the power of a mule. They are the makers of Red Mule Grits, which has found its way into several fine restaurants, including the Five & Ten in Athens and the Ritz Carlton on Lake Oconee in Greene County. These grits, like the corn meal and polenta they make, are made from organic corn, with no additives. “We grind to order and whereas most stuff already packaged has a long shelf life, this has to be kept refrigerated because we don’t put preservatives in it. It’s natural corn,” Alice Mills said.
“The Ritz Carlton was getting their grits from a place in South Carolina, until they found they could get ours and get the product in a fresh fashion. And he (the restaurant manager) liked the taste,” she said. The Mills live on a farm off Harve Mathis Road, where they also raise organic vegetables. The small mill where the corn is ground is powered by Luke, a red mule. The mill is certified by the State Department of Agriculture and there’s not another one like it. But mule power doesn’t mean it’s a mill like a great-great-grandfather would have worked.
“There’s not anything antique about the mill system at all,” said Mills.
“The good Lord put it in my mind to do this and the way we’re doing it,” he said matter-of-factly.
“When I thought to do it with a mule, I thought we’d find someone else doing it, but there wasn’t one to be found,” he said. “So I said, OK. I’ll build it. I didn’t have anything to go by at all. When I started it, every kind of gear box you can find gears down, and we had to gear up. I’d run into a stump and I’d come in and sit down. I learned not to ask anything about the mill.” Mills would open his Bible and find inspiration in the scripture.
“I’d go back out there and, one step at the time, we’d come up with it,” he said.
He had to travel to North Wilksboro, N.C., to find the screening for his sifter, which separates the corn meal and the grits as it is ground. “If I had the wrong size screen wire, it wouldn’t work,” he said.
The process of devising his cornmeal was long and accented by trial and error. It took almost three years for Mills to work out the kinks in the operation and his wife was an observer of the entire process. “He couldn’t get it to work,” she said. “It’d break. It wouldn’t hold together. Like I’ve said, it has not been an overnight bingo. It’s been quite a number of years.”
Devising a sifting scheme saved hours of work. “We were hand sifting – talk about a long process. Sitting there for hours and hours with a handsifter was not what we wanted to do. Tim thought if we’re going to grind, we’ve got to have a better way (to sift) and he finally came up with a device that really works.”
The mule provides the muscle for grinding the corn.
“You can ground this meal by hand, but if you got two pounds of grits ground with this by hand you’d be worn out. But with his help, we can grind 100 pounds of grits an hour,” Mills said.
Working the mill is time- consuming, and while the Lord gave him inspiration, Mills said the Lord “won’t do the work for you. ”Today, they grind organic grits and cornmeal for several places in Athens, including the Athens Country Club, Ms. Sarah’s Restaurant and Big City Bread. Yvonne Weems, the sister of Sarah Simmons, who owns Sarah’s, uses cornmeal from Red Mule. “We make the best cornbread in the state. I’ll put this cornbread up against anybody’s,” she said. “It’s awesome. “The key is taking that cornmeal and knowing what to do with it and we do.”
The Mills also make polenta, which was named by a woman in Italy. It seems a woman took some to her grandmother in that country. “She was so impressed she said, ‘You go back and tell those people to make Polenta de Georgia.’ And that’s what the name of our product is,” Alice Mills said.
Polenta is a fine cornmeal or what was called corn mush many generations ago. The Mills also make a porridge made of ground corn, wheat and oats. They don’t make a lot of porridge because they have to grind three grains and mix it to the right ratio, so it takes more time.
While grits are a Southern stable for breakfast, the Mills said it also makes a suitable substitute for potatoes or rice at dinners. In fact, at the fancier restaurants they are used for evening meals. Tim Mills is satisfied with the way his mule-powered mill works. It’s like a step back in time to use a farm animal, but he’s not dependent on electricity, nor is it as primitive as using stones as did American Indians.
“Can you imagine,” he asked, as Luke walked in a circle to power the mill, “if tomorrow didn’t turn out like today? And trying to grind enough corn meal with two rocks to make supper? You wouldn’t have time to do anything else.”